School counselor claims politics blocked her promotion

Tara Furmaniak sues Bayonne Board of Education after being passed over for assistant principal slot

Was a Bayonne Board of Education hiring decision motivated by political ties over merit?
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Was a Bayonne Board of Education hiring decision motivated by political ties over merit?

School counselor and former Woodrow Wilson School assistant principal Tara Furmaniak has alleged that members of the Bayonne Board of Education passed her over for a promotion because Board of Education Candidate Leo Smith is her father.

According to the suit, Furmaniak believes that she would have been granted a promotion to an assistant principal position if not for some board of education trustees’ political animus toward Leo Smith.

Smith is a former business administrator with the board of education. During a 40-year career as an employee of the board, Smith also worked as a teacher and school administrator. He is currently on the ballot in the 2019 Board of Education election. His brother, Mark Smith, is a former Bayonne mayor.

Furmaniak filed her case in Hudson County Superior Court on Sept. 26, alleging that because of her family ties, she wasn’t promoted to an assistant principal position that opened up this year.

The two Board of Education trustees she targeted in the complaint are Ava Finnerty, who defeated Leo Smith by a razor-thin margin of 33 votes in the 2018 election, and Denis Wilbeck, an incumbent trustee who is running against Smith in the Nov. 5 election.

Furmaniak alleged that, of the two applicants who were seeking to fill the assistant principal position, she had “significantly greater work experience” than the other applicant who was awarded the position, and claimed that in hiring a “less qualified” candidate, the Bayonne Board of Education trustees violated the governing body’s own code of ethics.

In addition to teaching for 10 years, Furmaniak held an assistant principal position from 2015-2017 in the Woodrow Wilson School. She was eventually “bumped” down to a school counselor position. Her yearly pay was cut by $65,000.

Furmaniak applied to become a Dean of Students in 2017. She also applied for an Interim/Acting Assistant Principal post in 2018. She was not hired for either post.

After Leo Smith announced he was running as an independent Board of Education candidate, the Bayonne Board of Education held a meeting in August in which it decided which applicant would be appointed to the assistant principal position.

Furmaniak claimed that she was the recommended candidate informally endorsed by Superintendent of Schools John Niesz, along with two assistant superintendents, prior to the meeting.

At the meeting, Furmaniak alleged that Trustees Wilbeck and Finnerty “took exception to [Furmaniak] being nominated, using words to the effect that ‘she was Leo’s daughter,’ ‘part of the Smith family,’ and ‘we don’t want her.’”

Niesz was also named as a defendant in the suit. Furmaniak alleged that he failed to “assert his authority” and should have insisted that Furmaniak be hired over the other candidate.

“Defendant Niesz did, therefore, act in concert with defendants Wilbeck and Finnerty in denying plaintiff the position to which she was entitled based upon her greater credentials and qualifications,” the suit reads.

Furmaniak is seeking compensatory and exemplary damages, as well as damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, punitive damages, and attorney’s fees and costs as provided by law.

By press time, Wilbeck, and Finnerty did not respond to requests for comment. Should they respond, this story will be updated.

Niesz, who said he was advised not to discuss pending litigation or personnel matters from the Board of Education counsel, declined to comment on the case.

For updates on this and more stories check hudsonreporter.com or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at mikem@hudsonreporter.com.